Equal Partners
by Roland Ezri

Equal Partners by Roland Ezri

Equal Partners

By Roland Ezri

"Women are the backbone of all societies. They do a substantial part of the work, and play a major role in raising the future generation yet they are largely powerless. The decisions that count are made by men and foisted upon women."

Writings by Roland Ezri

The Second Exodus – Egypt – XXXV. My Years at 12A Rue Khantaret Ghamra – Cleaning (2 of 3)


Without piped hot water, laundry detergent, washing machine, and drier, laundry day in our household was a three-ring-circus!

Every second Monday, our family had a date with the washerwoman. Our laundry was soaked in water the night before in big cans. To the water we added barawi and mixed the whole thing vigorously. Barawi are soap-ends, what’s left after washing the dishes and cleaning the house. And, yes, we’re still talking of the same brown soap! Since we never had enough barawi, a bar of soap was cut into small pieces and added to the water.

On laundry days, we stayed out of the way of the women. Indeed, we did that starting with the previous night.

The anxious question raised was: “What happen if the washerwoman doesn’t show up?” Remember that the laundry is soaking in water; as well, we need clean laundry. Since most people didn’t have phones, we couldn’t get in touch with her. It’s a big problem, but not to worry, there is a plan B!

Presto, the maid is sent to the makwagi (explained later) where she relates the drama taking place in the Ezri household. The makwagi is well-connected, and, within an hour or so, he shows up at the door with a temp! Another washerwoman who will do our laundry. Invariably, my mother is never satisfied with the work of this person.

Who on earth is a makwagi? Makwa in Arabic means ironing. And indeed, we sent to our makwagi all clothes that needed ironing. A makwagi does more than iron; he washes, steam clean, dyes, and mend clothes. What he can’t do himself, he will subcontract. By now you’ve guessed that our makwagi doubled as an employment agency! All our maids came through him. Of course, he gets paid for rendering this type of professional service. And, needless to say, the fee is vigorously negotiated by the parties. He also expects and gets an extra bakshish when he reminds my mother how many children he has to feed.

What happens on a laundry day? The washerwoman is provided with two lit primuses and she places the cans on them. When the water begins to boil, she stirs the whole thing with a long stick. When the soap dissolves, she gradually brings the laundry to a tocht (a large brass container), adds cold water and vigorously washes each piece. She then rinses it with water until all soap is removed. Next she wrings it and announces that a batch is ready. At this point, her role is over. The ball is in Flora’s court.

My mom hangs the laundry on the ropes stretching out of the balcony. The procedure is repeated with each new batch of laundry. Often, the balcony of a neighbor is also used; of course, the favor is returned when it’s her wash day.

My grandmother takes over when the laundry is dry. She does the bashkar (sorting), and put the clothes away.

There came a day when Lux introduced an amazing new product: Soap in flakes! I stress again that this was just soap, and not the laundry detergent we have today. Nevertheless, my mother was besides herself with joy. She no longer had to fiddle with barawi!

Before we close the books on laundry day, there remain one question: What are some of the reasons given by the washerwoman to account for a no-show (besides being sick)? I can tell you many stories. However, because of lack of space, I’ll relate to you the most exciting one.

During supper on a Monday night, a wash day, Nessim casually asked why the washerwoman didn’t show up on the previous laundry day. My mother looked at my grandmother and they both had a sly smile. This was followed by throat clearing, winks, and sideway glances in our (Robert and myself) direction. Finally, my mother said, “Gymnastique de Chambre (Bedroom Gymnastics).” My dad looked bemused. Obviously, he was just as ignorant as when he first raised the question. Then my grandmother told my mom something in Ladino. This was followed by a long exchange between my parents in Italian. There was a lot of laughter and plenty of nodding from my father to indicate that he understood.

When I got frustrated and demanded that my mother repeats the story in French, she told me that the washerwoman saga was not for the tender ears of a little boy. She reassured me though that nothing tragic has happened to her. But, of course, I had reached that conclusion on my own since the adults were so amused.

Years went by. By then we were living in Israel. It was a laundry day (now done using a washing machine), and I was reminded of the above incident; and so I asked my mother to elaborate. It took her a while to retrieve the details from her memory.

The night before, the washerwoman’s husband was in an amorous mood; however, she turned him down since she had to work on the following day. He then suggested a “quickie,” and she consented. But the quickie quickly turned into a night of wild lovemaking. The combatants finally went to sleep in the wee hours of the morning. When this poor (but contented) woman woke up to go to work, she realized that she could barely stand, let alone wash the laundry of a whole family. So she went back to sleep with a clear conscience, for she knew that the makwagi would provide a replacement.

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